How blockchain is saving Lake Winnipeg

Blockchain could help with evidence-based decisionmaking on freshwater systems

Why It Matters

Buzzwords are becoming action. Blockchain technology is demonstrating that in a country tackling complicated, cross-jurisdictional problems such as water governance, there are open, grassroots, and transparent platforms that can help. This is just the beginning.

To most, terms like “blockchain” and “open data” are likely only buzzwords, but to the millions of Canadians living in and around the Lake Winnipeg watershed, these words will change how decisions are made.

While Lake Winnipeg is only the sixth largest freshwater lake in Canada, its basin is home to seven million people spread across four Canadian provinces and four American states.

The Lake Winnipeg Basin exemplifies a fundamental question facing Canadian water governance today: How can Canadian communities make effective, evidence-based decisions regarding our freshwater when our watersheds are so geographically diverse and span multiple jurisdictions?

Until recently, there has not been a data hub for information on the health of local watersheds that is accessible to the public, researchers or governments alike. Organizations have done their own monitoring and research while governments have done theirs. Too often data is being managed in ways that make collaboration difficult and expensive.

Canadians, meanwhile, often don’t see the results. But this can change.

The Gordon Foundation, in collaboration with our partners, has developed an online open data platform, called DataStream, to bring information about local rivers, lakes, and wetlands together so that anyone, anywhere, can get a clearer picture of freshwater health. This open access data provides a solid foundation for informed decisions and policy. Anyone interested in water quality, including researchers, decision-makers, community organizers, and the general public, can access, store and share full water quality datasets collected across thousands of monitoring sites in hub regions across Canada—all through this powerful platform.

We began in the Mackenzie Basin in partnership with the Government of the Northwest Territories. This success led to the launch of Atlantic DataStream in 2018, with the Atlantic Water Network. Our third hub since launching in 2016 came online recently: Lake Winnipeg DataStream, which is being rolled out regionally in collaboration with the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

Using blockchain technology, DataStream provides a level of security and transparency that does not exist in any other known system for managing water data in Canada. A blockchain, or “digital fingerprint” allows users to independently track and verify any changes to datasets over time and gives assurances that data is authentic.

Fifty organizations have made their data openly accessible and more importantly, this includes actors from the grassroots to the provincial and federal levels. Our mission is to promote knowledge sharing across watersheds and advance collaborative decision-making, so our waters remain healthy for generations to come.

The report A Snapshot of Community Based Water Monitoring in Canada notes that initiatives like DataStream “are filling information gaps” while “following scientifically rigorous protocols, having their data analyzed by professional scientists, and addressing a diversity of community concerns relating to the health of freshwater resources.” For First Nations like Mikisew Cree First Nation interested in how water quality changes across jurisdictional boundaries, Mackenzie DataStream greatly reduces the upfront costs of tracking down and standardizing datasets. Meanwhile in Atlantic Canada, a network of highly active water monitoring organizations now have the data infrastructure needed to compare notes, align efforts, and effectively collaborate across watersheds.

Thousands of Canadians already use DataStream, which now contains more than one million unique observations. Given where we were as a country on the management of water health data only two years ago, we’ve come a long way. With blockchain technology and community-based partners, we’ll ensure that the innovative solutions  that make our country better don’t only apply to programmers in Silicon Valley.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Hill Times.